UMBC Magazine caught up with UMBC President Freeman Hrabowski at his home office to talk about alumni leadership during the pandemic, UMBC’s Golden Commencement, and a symbol of hope in tough times.
UMBC Magazine: Given the challenges we’re all facing, it’s wonderful to hear about UMBC alumni making a difference in so many ways. We see Retrievers in health leadership, such as Kizzmekia Corbett ’08, M16, working at the National Institutes of Health on COVID-19 vaccines; U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams ’97, M4; Baltimore Health Commissioner Letitia Dzirasa ‘03, M11; and Kaitlyn Sadtler ’11, leading a new COVID study at NIH on asymptomatic patients. We have Mark Doms ’86, the new chief economist of the Congressional Budget Office, and artists like Jill Fannon, M.F.A. ’11, photographing healthcare providers…and so many other inspiring people. How does it make you feel to see our alumni making their mark in these ways?
Freeman Hrabowski: We have produced well-prepared leaders who are committed to the public good all along, from the Maryland Speaker of the House and the Baltimore County Executive to the Chief of Staff for the Governor and the Maryland Secretary of Labor, all the way over to the heads of the Associated Black Charities and the Center for Urban Families. All of these people in a variety of policy and public service roles are leading our country and our communities in supporting children and families.
And we’ve got alumni leading and doing important work across the board, from the arts to the sciences. So across the disciplines, looking through different sets of lenses, people are working to understand and support people in their time of need. And it is very inspiring.
UMBC Magazine: We’ve been thinking a lot about our graduating class, the Class of 2020, and what this semester meant to them, but it’s also the 50th anniversary of UMBC’s first Commencement. Do you feel there are connecting points between the Class of 1970 and our newest graduates?
Hrabowski: I think many people would call the period of the ’60s another generation-defining moment in American history. From the Civil Rights Movement to Vietnam to changes in voting rights in our country, we saw civil unrest, and we also saw some progress. We saw the assassination of a president, John Kennedy, the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., and the assassination of Senator Robert Kennedy—all in an eight-month period during the ’60s. People who were graduating in the ’70s had been through those times of great uncertainty and tragedy, very much so, and I relate to and resonate with UMBC’s Class of 1970 because that is also the year I graduated from college. My wife and I were supposed to be going down to Hampton University this spring for our 50th reunion.
The Class of 1970 experienced those things in high school and college—the unrest, the tragedy, and fear—and right now our graduating class of 2020 is having the same type of experiences. Yet beyond the fear about the future, the uncertainty, and the tragedy, we also are seeing Americans come together with people from around the world to help each other. The most important message in both periods, in the midst of the uncertainty, is that we will get through this.
And so there’s this theme of hope in the midst of the chaos and fear and uncertainty. In 2020, as in 1970, we are at a point where we are being tested as human beings and as a society to show who we are at our very core. And the good news, the encouraging news, is that when we as human beings get knocked down, we have this indomitable spirit that pushes us to get back up and to say we can do this. We can go through this, and we can do this. And that’s why the celebration of 2020, as it was in 1970, is a message of hope for humanity.
You know, I saw this picture of the sunrise on campus, and one word popped into my head—hope. My grandmother used to always say, “Just remember that the sun will come back.” That’s a powerful message.
Header image by Corey Jennings ’10.